The Last Buffet

If there was one aspect of Sri Lanka of which we had a stomachful, it was buffets. At practically every hotel, there was a buffet. One for breakfast and another for dinner. And while we like buffets as much as anyone, sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.

Buffets have many advantages over à la carte. You can chose exactly what you want and how much. After wolfing your stacked-up pile of rice, meats, salads and assorted vegetables down, you can go up for more. What’s not to like about that?

Precisely.

Buffets have their disadvantages too. Generally they cost more than à la carte, which if you’re not feeling very hungry makes for a pricy meal. Sometimes the choice of dishes isn’t huge and the food is lukewarm.

Curds and treacle – great breakfast

During our brief sojourn at The Hotel At The Edge of Nowhere, only a buffet dinner was available. It was expensive, not very nice, and there was no alternative. Kate wasn’t hungry and went without. I paid my two and half thousand rupees for a plate of rice, several rather hard chicken nuggets, and a bowl of strawberry mousse.

That’s another problem with buffets. No matter how you arrange your plate, the various components don’t always go together. In what other circumstances would you serve spaghetti Bolognese with buggered fish fillets? Or stir-fried cabbage with cheese ratatouille?

The hotels use science in setting buffet foods out. Always the stodge comes first – left to right, steamed rice, fried rice, Mexican wave rice – because people heap more on their plates at the beginning, leaving less room for the savoury dishes further on. The serving tray lids are often heavy and difficult to lift with one hand, and the plates are hidden out of sight, heated until they’re too hot to handle.

For breakfast buffets, other strategies exist. Some serving trays are empty – yet their lids still have to be lifted up. Others contain the most unbreakfast-like of foods, such as curries, dhals and rices that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the dinner buffet. In fact, they may have been leftover from the dinner buffet.

Bespoke omelette

Yet not all was tepid, and not all was tame. One bar at breakfast always featured a chef cooking eggs to order. The Sri Lankan omelette with tomatoes, red onions, green chilli and curry leaves was particularly tasty. Hoppers too – rice/coconut pancakes in the shape of a bowl. And so much fresh fruit: papaya, watermelon, pineapple, soursop and mango. No danger of vitamin C deficiency here.

We went crazy with spicy foods in the first few days. So many good things to try – rice, curries, sambal, kottu, rotis and everything else. By the end of the first week, our stomachs were feeling the effects. And after twenty-eight days, our western palates had returned, and we longed for something simple such as plain old bacon and scrambled eggs. Not that we couldn’t get scrambled eggs, but they just weren’t the same. On our last morning in Kandy, I asked the egg chef for my eggs to be scrambled and he cooked an omelette, then at the last moment pulverised it with his spatula.

So as we arrived at Bandaranaike International Airport on our final evening, ready to fly home, the last thing I expected was another buffet. Surely our treat-time of buffets was over. From now on, we ordered à la carte or cooked it ourselves.

Getting into the airport wasn’t easy. Even before reaching the terminal building, we had to show our passports and itinerary at a security gate in the perimeter fence. Then once Sunil had dropped us outside the departures building, we had to show our documents again to be admitted. Inside, a huge X-ray machine awaited us. We fed our bags wholesale into its maw and submitted ourselves through the scanners. Next came an arcade of shops, mostly bank counters at one of which we exchanged our remaining rupees into US dollars. Then, as if we were playing an airport adventure game with ever increasingly difficult levels, there came another row of x-ray machines and scanners.

Clearly, we were going to be checked several times before we reached the plane. No doubt the enhanced and highly visible security measures were a response to the tragic Easter Sunday bombings.

We passed through the second level of checks and into the departure lounge proper. People queued at airline check-in desks while others, bereft of their hold luggage, marched confidently to Emigration. We couldn’t do the same. Not yet anyway, as our flight didn’t leave for another three and three quarter hours; our check-in desk wasn’t open. Instead we and our luggage made several orbits of the only bank of seats, all occupied. Then one seat became free and Kate sat down, while I perched on my case. For once, its size was an advantage. It was big enough to be more comfortable than the hard plastic chairs.

The next forty-five minutes dragged, that familiar phenomenon of time dilation spent waiting in a foreign airport. Eventually our desk opened, and gratefully surrendering our hold bags, we made our way through the next security checkpoint – more x-ray machines and scanners – into level three of the airport.

Delicious meal at Sunil’s house – not a buffet

Here at last we could take advantage of the airline lounge, a couple of quiet hours in comfortable chairs. Except there was one detail I’d forgotten – the pile of white plates, the range of stainless steel trays with aircraft door lids, the enticing yet overwhelming smell of spices.

One last buffet before we went home.

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